The main thing that determines whether a hiking sock is good or not is its material. Of course, there are other factors as well, like its fit, compression, padding, breathability, and so on, but the choice of fabric is by far the most important thing. That’s why for you, as a hiker, it’s important to understand which fabrics perform better than others.
In this article, we’ll go through all of the most common hiking sock materials and share other important things that you should look out for when shopping for a new pair of hiking socks. I’ve had plenty of experience hiking with different kinds of hiking socks, and in my 800 km / 500-mile thru-hike, I didn’t get a single blister, so I will also be talking about my own experiences.
What’s The Best Fabric Blend For Hiking Socks?
The best hiking socks are made from 40-70% merino wool (or regular wool), 20-50% synthetics (nylon, polyester, or acryl), and 1-4% elastane, spandex, or lycra. Each of these materials has its benefits and drawbacks, and by mixing all of them together, you can get a material that’s well-balanced in all aspects, such as durability, moisture-wicking, odor-resistance, breathability, antimicrobial properties, softness, and fit.
Hiking socks made from these materials usually cost more than regular socks, in the 20-40$ range. But from my own experience, they’re definitely worth it. I used to hike with cheaper 100% merino wool socks from Amazon, just because I didn’t want to spend so much on hiking socks. But after I finally switched to the Silverlight hiking socks, I pretty much stopped having any blisters. The switch was like night and day, and I’m not going back to cheap socks anytime soon.
There are a lot of manufacturers that make socks from these materials, including Darn Tough, Smartwool, Silverlight, Farm to Feet, Icebreaker, and others, and most of them make good-quality socks. I would recommend going with either one of them, as long as the fabric blend is similar to the one recommended above, and the sock has good reviews.
Most Popular Materials Used In Hiking Socks
This wool is perfect for hiking clothing, especially socks, due to various reasons. It’s soft to the skin and doesn’t itch, it’s very good at thermoregulation (keeping you cool in summer and warm in winter), it develops bad odors much slower compared to synthetics and cotton, and it’s breathable, so your socks don’t get damp from sweat as quickly.
Its main downsides are that it’s a somewhat expensive material, it isn’t too durable, and it soaks up water very well. That’s why it’s usually mixed together with synthetic fabrics, to get the best of both worlds.
Some sock manufacturers also use regular wool in their hiking socks. It still offers the same properties as merino wool, but it isn’t as soft on the skin and is itchier. When combined with synthetics, this can only be felt barely, but it’s why most gear brands choose merino wool over regular wool.
Nylon is a synthetic fabric very commonly used in hiking socks. It’s added to wool hiking socks to improve their durability, water-repellence, and fit. Nylon also doesn’t absorb any oils, which means that it doesn’t absorb sweat, and it smells good for much longer compared to other fabrics. This is important for hiking socks, especially when hiking in hot weather.
Polyester, similar to Nylon is also a synthetic fabric, and it’s also added to wool fabric blends to improve their durability, water-repellence, and fit. However, compared to nylon, polyester soaks up oils, but it doesn’t soak up water. This means that polyester socks will start to smell bad sooner than ones made from nylon. Although both synthetics are water-repellant, polyester is better at it, so it’s often used for socks specifically designed for hiking in water or rain.
Elastane, Spandex, and Lycra
All three materials, elastane, spandex, and lycra, are synthetics that are added to hiking sock fabric blends to improve their elasticity. They’re added in minimal amounts to make the sock more stretchable. There aren’t really any meaningful differences between all three of these materials, only that Lycra is a trademarked fabric.
Silk is a natural fabric obtained from silkworms. It’s sometimes used for sock liners because it’s moisture-resistant, really smooth on the skin, and naturally odor resistant. The only downside is that it’s expensive and not too durable, so it’s often mixed together with nylon or polyester.
Neoprene is a synthetic fabric, which is often used in socks meant for hiking in the rain or canyon hiking. Neoprene socks shouldn’t be used for long periods though, because they offer zero breathability. For specific hikes which involve crossing rivers or hiking along a river bank, they’re the ideal choice, because not only will your feet stay wet, but also warm due to Neoprene’s excellent insulation properties.
Acrylic is is another synthetic material and it resembles wool. It’s usually used as an additional material in wool, nylon, or polyester fabrics. Compared to wool, it’s more durable, and has better hydrophobic properties and odor resistance, but isn’t as soft to the skin, is less breathable, and has worse insulation properties. Compared to polyester and nylon, it’s less durable but much warmer.
Cotton is a natural material, from which most regular, non-hiking socks are made. It’s also often used in cheap hiking socks. However, I do not recommend using cotton socks when hiking. In addition to being heavier, fitting more poorly, and developing bad odors much more quicker, cotton socks also cause blisters. That’s because cotton soaks up water really well, and once it does, it starts to rub against your skin, almost like sandpaper. Of all the materials used in socks, cotton is the worst choice for hiking socks.
Less Popular Materials Used In Hiking Socks
- Silver. In newer hiking socks, some manufacturers have started adding 1-5% silver yarns, which contain real silver. This gives the sock antimicrobial properties, which is really good for hiking specifically because blisters can be caused by bacteria, and the socks have a much better odor resistance. I finished a thru-hike with the Silverlight hiking socks, and I noticed that they started to stink only after 3-5 days of intense summer hiking without washing them, which is much better compared to most other hiking socks. Plus, I didn’t get a single blister during the whole 36-day thru-hike.
- Bamboo. Some manufacturers also use bamboo fabrics for hiking socks, although not many. Bamboo is a semi-natural fabric, and it offers many properties that are good for hiking socks – it’s breathable, antimicrobial, very soft to the skin, and wicks away moisture. Its only downside is that it wears down somewhat quickly, which is why it’s usually mixed together with wool, synthetics, and elastane to get a well-performing sock.
- Coolmax. The brand that makes “Lycra”, which is pretty much just elastane/spandex, also has patented the Coolmax name, which is essentially polyester fabric. It’s marketed as a more breathable and moisture-wicking synthetic, due to its threaded pattern, but personally, I’ve found Coolmax to perform only marginally better than polyester. In good hiking socks, it should be mixed together with merino wool and elastane.
- Polypropylene (Olefin). It’s another type of synthetic that’s used in hiking socks and base layers. Compared to polyester, it wicks away moisture better, dries quicker, and holds heat for longer, but it isn’t as breathable.
- Rayon. Rayon is a semi-natural fabric that’s occasionally used in hiking socks. It’s made from cellulose fibers combined with chemicals, to mimic to look and feel of cotton with improved durability, moisture resistance, and odor resistance. Technically, bamboo fabric falls under the name of Rayon, but rayon could also be made from wood or other types of cellulose.
- Polyurethane. Occasionally, hiking sock manufacturers also use polyurethane in their fabric to improve their water resistance and improve their elasticity. It’s another type of synthetic fabric.
Other Factors To Consider When Shopping For Hiking Socks
- Good-quality brand. I’ve had personal experience hiking with cheap Amazon socks, and more-expensive hiking socks, and I would definitely recommend the costlier ones. That’s because with good socks, I don’t get any blisters, but with cheaper ones I still do. Some good-quality hiking socks manufacturers include Darn Tough, Silverlight, Smartwool, Danish Endurance, Icebreaker, Bombas, Farm to Feet, Injinji, Stance, and Balega.
- Padded panels. A hiking sock shouldn’t be made from a single identical fabric all around. Ideally, it should have extra-cushioned fabrics along the heel and the toe area, to reduce the chances of blister formation and improve comfort.
- No-show vs ankle vs crew vs knee-high. Your sock should always be a bit higher than your footwear to avoid abrasion and to keep your socks from slipping down. No-show socks should only be used with trail runners and hiking shoes. Ankle socks can also be used with mid-height hiking boots. Crew socks are the most popular option, since they can also be used with long boots, and they’ll provide protection when walking on overgrown paths that would scratch your legs otherwise. Knee-high socks are usually used only for winter hiking or on extra-rough terrains.
- Lightweight vs midweight vs heavyweight. This determines how padded and thick the hiking sock will be. Lightweight socks are meant for people with wide feet or for summer hiking because they’re usually padded only along the heel and the toebox. Midweight is your best all-rounder, providing a good amount of cushioning and being good for people with narrow feet. Midweight socks will sometimes also have additional cushioning around the ball section of your foot. Heavyweight socks are usually only used for skiing and mountaineering, as they retain heat very well and provide plenty of cushioning.
- Toe vs regular socks. Lately, a lot of people have been switching over to toe socks. Essentially, each toe is wrapped separately inside the sock, which reduces the chances of blister formation between the toes, and decreases the sweating of your feet. The only downside is that you really have to nail the fit with toe socks so that each of your toes feels comfortable and not tight.
- One vs two layers of socks. A lot of hikers sweat by wearing two pairs of hiking socks. The main idea behind it is to have a tight-fitting inner layer, which will stop the friction between your feet and the sock, and instead, the friction will happen between the two sock layers, which greatly reduces the chances of blister formation. For this system, you’ll need to size up your hiking footwear by at least half a size, get a thin layer of synthetic sock liners, and another thicker layer out of merino wool socks.
- Breathability panels. On the top of the foot or at the sides of the arch, ideally, the sock should be made from a more breathable fabric, to reduce the sweating of your feet, especially for summer hiking.
- Compression. If the sock has built-in elastic compression panels along the middle of the sock and over the ankle, it will greatly improve the fit of the sock. It will also reduce blisters because the sock won’t be moving around your feet.
- Sized for the left and right foot individually. Unfortunately, most hiking socks are identical for both feet. However, some socks, like the Silverlight merino wool hiking socks, are shaped for each foot individually. This means that there isn’t any loose fabric folded around your pinky, which improves comfort and reduces the chances of blister formation.
- Lifetime guarantee. The best sock manufacturers also offer a lifetime warranty for their socks, like Darn Tough and Silverlight.
Frequently Asked Questions
What sock fabric is better for hiking in the summer?
For hiking in the summer, a lightweight or midweight hiking sock will perform the best. Also, it should ideally contain only 30-60% merino wool, and the rest should be made from nylon, polyester, acrylic, elastane, Lycra, or spandex. Having a lower merino wool content means that its moisture-wicking and durability properties will be improved, while still maintaining a good level of breathability, which is important if you want to avoid blisters when hiking in hot, active conditions.
Which sock fabric is warmest for winter hiking?
For winter hiking, it’s best to choose midweight or heavyweight hiking socks, which are mostly made of merino wool. Ideally, the sock should be made of 50-75% merino wool in combination with other synthetics (polyester, nylon, spandex, elastane, or Lycra). This will ensure that the sock will have good insulation properties and odor resistance, while still being breathable enough to avoid over-sweating. Merino wool also sustains its insulation properties when wet, which is important for winter hiking.
What is the best sock material for sweaty feet?
If your feet tend to sweat a lot, you should go with merino wool socks with a heavier merino wool percentage, ideally between 50-75%. That’s because merino wool moves sweat in its vapor form to the outer layers of the sock, which helps you with keeping your feet dry. It’s also more breathable than synthetics.
But the material is not the only thing to look out for. The hiking sock should also have breathable, mesh-like panels, and you should go with a lightweight sock, which will be a bit thinner than usual.
The main downside of this is that merino wool socks with a heavier percentage of merino wool wear down quicker, and they dry a bit slower compared to synthetic socks, so you’ll have to change between different pairs of hiking socks while hiking.
Which sock material is best for preventing blisters?
For preventing blisters, the best sock materials are merino wool and synthetics. The ideal hiking sock fabric should be made from 40-70% merino wool, 20-50% nylon, polyester, or acryl, and 1-4% elastane, spandex, or lycra.
However, to avoid blister formation, you should also watch out for other factors. First of all, the sock should fit you tightly, but not too tightly, so it doesn’t move around your feet when walking, and doesn’t compress your feet too much. It should also have cushioning around the heel and the toebox. And ideally, each sock should be made for each foot individually, so that there isn’t excess fabric around your pinky.
Which sock material lasts the longest?
Synthetic hiking sock materials tend to last the longest (polyester, nylon, and acrylic). Merino wool is the least durable material, which is why it’s often combined with synthetics. If you’re looking for a long-lasting sock, choose one that has a higher synthetic fabric percentage, ideally between 40-70%.
How much wool should be in hiking socks?
Good hiking socks should contain about 30-75% merino wool, and the rest should be combined with synthetics (polyester, nylon, elastane, spandex, or Lycra). A lower percentage of wool means that your socks will be more durable, dry quicker, and fit you better. A higher percentage of merino wool makes your socks more breathable, thermoregulating, and odor resistant, but it will decrease their durability and increase their drying time.
Summer hiking socks should usually be somewhat thin, so you should be getting them with a bit lower merino wool percentage to improve their durability. For winter hiking, insulation, odor resistance, and thermoregulation are more important so go with socks with a higher merino wool percentage.
Are cotton socks OK for hiking?
You should avoid wearing cotton socks for hiking. Although they’re breathable and comfortable, they soak up water incredibly well. And once they do, they start to rub against your skin and cause blisters.
Are polyester socks okay to hike with?
Generally, polyester socks are okay to hike with, but they aren’t ideal. 100% polyester socks won’t be very breathable, they’ll start to smell very quickly, and they aren’t too soft against the skin. This means that when hiking long distances, you’ll probably have to tape your feet to prevent or treat blisters.
Instead, choose hiking socks that contain 20-50% polyester in combination with wool or merino wool. This will greatly improve the breathability and comfort of the sock, which will greatly reduce blister formation.